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Image: Buoys out at sea. Credit:

Since 2012, Indonesia has not had a buoy-based tsunami early detection system.

Public Relations Head of the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB), Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, stated this at a press conference on the handling the earthquake and tsunami in Palu and Donggal in Jakarta on Sunday. “Since 2012, not one buoy has been operating properly, even though it is needed as part of the early warning system. BMKG can be asked why this is,” he told the press.

A quick check of the BMKG site and the only information they have is how they lost and found two of the buoys since the network was set up in 2005 and other blank pages that say nothing. From other accountants it appears the buoys have been damaged or stolen by local fishermen, or dragged off by large ships and lost.

In addition, Sutopo also revealed disaster mitigation efforts are also being hampered by budget constraints. According to him, disaster funding continues to fall every year. “While the threat and incidence of disasters is increasing, the BNPB budget is actually decreasing.”

This affects mitigation efforts. “The installation of the (very expensive to buy and maintain) early warning equipment is limited by a reduced budget,” he added.

It is not the first time Sutopo has stated this as in mid-December 2017 he told reporters that Indonesia had a total of 22 buoys scattered in the waters of the archipelago which were all unusable.

There was much public discussion related to the tsunami warning being lifted half an hour after the Palu and Donggala earthquake last Friday evening. Soon after the warning was lifted, videos were circulating social media of a tsunami smashing into Palu city. The BNPB and BMKG agencies later that night confirmed that there had actually been a tsunami, which left thousands dead and misplaced.

No one can say if any buoys would have help the people that night in Palu as the tsunami, which was channeled into the bay with an increasing intensity, had already hit before the warning was lifted. Having a buoy in the bay may have read the information, but there would have been little time to react.

The place where an early warning system would have had more effect would be out to sea if tidal movements had headed to a more distant neighbouring island or even continent as in 2004, where there would be more time to react.

A new prototype network of undersea sensors funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, has been deployed between Padang and the Mentawai islands.

This new technology costs a fraction of the buoys and according to the scientists involves send information and warnings much quicker. “1-3 minutes instead of the 5-45 minutes,” says Louise Comfort, of the University of Pittsburgh.

However, this system also has its own funding issues as the money to lay the last few kilometers of fiber optic cable to get it working will cost the Indonesian government about Rp 1.5 billion ($112,000), which they don’t appear to have. So that system too is laying idle.

As the experts also says there is always a lot more funding spent on the post-disaster, recovery efforts than long term preventative systems. Those systems don’t appear to attract much attention nor generosity after things quieten down.